He'll face tougher tests ahead, but Ole Gunnar Solskjaer appears to have restored some self-belief to Manchester United.
It’s astonishing the difference a manager can make. In Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s first game after replacing Jose Mourinho, Manchester United looked like Manchester United again. It was only, admittedly, against bottom-half side Cardiff City. Solksjaer’s simple insistence that his players “express themselves” may not be sufficient against better opponents, but expressing themselves is what United used to do against sides like Cardiff City, and what it hasn’t done in recent times.
There was a freshness about United, a sense of initiative. Paul Pogba, back in the starting lineup, was notably lively. The two fullbacks, Ashley Young and the recalled Luke Shaw, got forward far more than they did under Mourinho. The front three of Jesse Lingard, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial played with verve, imagination and a readiness to run with the ball, often interchanging position with fluidity.
And United had luck. It was ahead inside three minutes after Rashford’s free-kick swerved and caught Cardiff keeper Neil Etheridge wrong-footed, then two-up before the half hour when Ander Herrera’s shot looped in via a significant deflection. When Victor Camarasa pulled one back for the home side from the penalty spot, United’s response was to score a brilliant goal less than three minutes later. It was a most un-Mourinho goal, the result of a rapid interchange of short passes polished off by Martial.
Two second half goals from Lingard, one a penalty and one from another fluent passing move, completed a 5-1 win—the first time United had scored five in a Premier League game since Sir Alex Ferguson’s final match in charge, way back in 2013. With Chelsea losing, the gap to fourth is down to eight points, and the Solskjaer era is off to a promising start. With a relatively kind fixture list coming up, Solskjaer now has a great opportunity to consolidate the positivity of this win.
His job, in a sense, is to restore to United a sense of joy and a sense of what the club is. His appointment only really makes sense in those terms. He was perhaps the greatest ever substitute as a player, and can be something similar as a manager. Where other interim managers would, even now, be plotting to keep the job long-term, he perhaps more than any other even vaguely viable candidate is prepared to accept the temporary role, though he did say he of course would relish the opportunity to take over full-time.
Even in his press conference on Friday, he was making jokes about how much time he spent on the bench as a player at Old Trafford. “At Manchester United,” he said, “there are a set of demands and one is to be a team player and I don't think anyone has been on the bench more than me. That's all my comeback to players, you might come on make an impact.” It’s also pertinent to the position he finds himself in. He will not plot and scheme, but he will hope that if he performs well enough he just might get the job permanently.
That attitude—that acceptance of being smaller than the club—is just part of what makes Solskjaer the ideal unity candidate. He is a club legend, having scored the most important goal in the club’s post-Busby history in the ’99 Champions League final. He is likable. Almost anybody could have replaced Jose Mourinho and lifted the mood, but the change of tone has been remarkable. Gone is the surliness, and in its place has come a sense of somebody delighted to be given the opportunity.
But that perhaps is also part of the problem. There is an unfortunate sense of substitute teacher about Solskjaer, somebody who may carry the class with his boyish enthusiasm for a couple of hours, but is likely to find “KICK ME” chalked on his jacket by the end of the second week. His record as a manager, after all, is mixed.
Although he won the reserve league with Manchester United in 2009—when he worked with Pogba before his departure for Juventus—and then led Molde to two surprise Norwegian league titles, his stint with Cardiff did not go well. Taking over the club in January when they were in the relegation zone, he oversaw just three Premier League wins as Cardiff was relegated. He left the job the following September after a promising start began to turn sour. That shouldn’t write him off— the circumstances were difficult—but it’s also not much of a resume for somebody managing the great Manchester United.
The biggest attribute Solskjaer has, perhaps, is that he understands United. He has already spoken to Sir Alex Ferguson for advice, and has repeatedly referred to him as “the greatest”. Ferguson always said Solkjaer was likely to make it as a coach, impressed by how he studied the game from the bench and the way that after a lengthy period out with injury in 2003 he began taking notes on how Ferguson handled certain situations.
There is a danger to that—plenty of clubs, including United, have tied themselves in knots trying to recreate in the present the approach of somebody who worked in the past—but Solskjaer is likely to attempt a style of football more in keeping with the club’s cavalier self-image than the negativity of the Mourinho way. That was abundantly clear on Saturday.
There is a long way to go until the end of the season, and there will be many sterner tests, but Solskjaer at least has restored a little of United’s self-belief.